The Chicago Bulls avoided a letdown their last time out and aren't likely to overlook the struggling Charlotte Bobcats, either.
Looking for an 11th win in 13 games overall, the Bulls hope to avoid a third loss in four meetings with a Bobcats team that could again be without leading scorer Stephen Jackson on Wednesday night.
After road wins over two of the Eastern Conference's top teams - Orlando and Miami - Chicago (44-18) returned home Monday to face a New Orleans team missing four-time All-Star Chris Paul.
A day after completing a season sweep of the Heat and staying ahead of them for second place in the East, the Bulls were somewhat lethargic against the Hornets and the game was tied with three minutes to play. However, they pulled off an 85-77 victory to move within 2 1/2 games of Boston for the conference lead.
"It was a good win," said Joakim Noah, who had 13 rebounds. "It was a win that we really needed. You look at the top four, five teams in the East, everything is really close. So every game is very important. We understand that. We're just staying focused on improving and winning."
The Bulls must keep that focus against the Bobcats (26-37), the only sub-.500 team to beat them more than once this season. Chicago lost the first two meetings while averaging just 86.5 points before recording a 106-94 home win Feb. 15 behind Luol Deng's 24 points and Derrick Rose's 13 assists - he totaled 11 in the first two matchups.
Noah, who missed all three meetings with a thumb injury, is averaging 16.5 points and 13.3 rebounds in his last four games in the series.
The Bulls have lost four of five at Charlotte, but they completed a 4-1 trip in Miami and are one road win away from surpassing their total from last season (17).
"The city is excited about this team and I think they have a right to be, but for us as players you know, our mentality is different," Noah said. "You got to take it game by game, not get too excited and really focus on the moment, focus on playing game by game and staying consistent."
One area in which Chicago has been extremely consistent is defense. While they are allowing an NBA-low 91.5 points per game, the Bulls have held opponents to 81.1 points on 40.2 percent shooting over their current 6-1 stretch.
That doesn't bode well for Charlotte, averaging 81.2 points and shooting 40.7 percent over a season-worst five-game losing streak. The Bobcats are 3-22 when scoring 90 or less.
Jackson, averaging 19.0 points, was held out for the second consecutive contest Monday night with an injured left hamstring as Charlotte fell 92-87 to the Los Angeles Clippers.
"We were close, but anytime you take the best player out of your lineup, you're going to suffer," coach Paul Silas said. "We tried hard. We just didn't have enough."
Jackson's status for Wednesday is unknown. Forward Tyrus Thomas was hoping to return after missing 23 games due to knee surgery, but he suffered a setback in his recovery and won't play.
Thomas, who spent his first three-plus seasons with the Bulls, had 17 points and 13 rebounds in a 96-91 win over his former team Jan. 12.
"Jack and Tyrus are two big keys to our team," guard Gerald Henderson said. "Overall, we're going to need them to win."
Henderson scored 20 points Monday and is averaging 14.7 over the last nine games - 7.1 more than his season mark.